The Small Screen
Deep Cuts January 7, 2021
The last two installments of Steve McQueen's Small Axe anthology
he final two parts of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology, a series of movies about the lives of London’s West Indian population from the late-1960s through
the ‘80s, are, in essence, coming-of-age stories. The fourth chapter of the series, Alex Wheatle, dramatizes the titular novelist’s early adult life. And the “conclusion,” Education, is a semi-autobiographical story broadly about how London’s education system discriminated against Black students for decades (it would shuttle those “unfit” for mainstream teaching into schools for the “educationally subnormal”). It zeroes in on one student, 12-year-old Kingsley (Kenyah Sandy), who is preyed upon by the practice. Taken together, the chapters of this expansive, emotionally vivid anthology become in part an epic about how its focused-on community pushed against — and succeeded in — challenging the white supremacy of the London in which they lived.
Alex Wheatle and Education are the shortest of the anthology’s parts (they’re both just a little over an hour) but keep intact the punch of their predecessors. Alex Wheatle, like second chapter Lovers Rock, skews toward the impressionistic. We see a handful of scenes from Wheatle’s childhood (an orphan, he endured constant racism from social-services workers and at school), but the movie mostly centers on his 18th year, when he was finally on his own and had to learn how to come into his own after years of knowing little aside from that he was unloved. That year was also the one where he was imprisoned for participating in the 1981 Brixton Riot, which was ignited by what has been speculated to have been a racially motivated arson in South London. The movie is not as much interested in creating for the viewer a streamlined narrative as it is in presenting a series of scenes that together form an impression of Wheatle’s journey toward delayed self-recognition.
Sheyi Cole, who plays Wheatle, is excellent as a young man who, little by little, gets closer to the sense of self he has been inhibited from having a hold on. The movie is the least emotionally involving of the Small Axe movies; it sometimes feels like more a series of sketches than that much of a cohesive statement. But I also can’t think of what McQueen could have done differently. In the end you’re still left with the impression it seems he wanted us to have: that if one were to dramatize a crucial period in Wheatle’s life, this would be the window to cover, and this would be the way to give it new life. (Wheatle published his first book, Brixton Rock, in 1999.)
Education is an effective denouement to the anthology. It’s ultimately optimistic but, like its predecessors, refrains from portraying happy developments as simplistic comprehensive salves. Although the movie speaks specifically to the racist failings of the British public education system a few decades ago, that doesn’t make it feel any less urgent. The problems it evokes have evolved — foundationally they remain a constant. As the action starts in the movie, Kingsley, a bright 12-year-old particularly fascinated with astronomy, is ferried off to a school for the “educationally subnormal.” This decision all apparently based on an IQ test, but we know, from early scenes, that the white-dominant school is simply eager to rid itself of him. (When he mispronounces a word during a popcorn-reading exercise, his teacher humiliates him in front of everybody, and basically encourages the rest of his students to join him in his laughter — it’s a simulacrum of the culture of racism at this school.) Kingsley begins acting out — clearly a manifestation of his frustration. This is enough for the school to sever its ties with him.
When the headmaster tells Kingsley’s mother, the overworked Agnes (Sharlene Whyte), that the “special” school to which her son is about to be sent will be better for him (it’ll have smaller classes; more concentrated lesson plans, she's promised), she has no reason to doubt it. But upon Kingsley’s arrival, it’s clear that this secondary option, so many miles from home, is not much more than a place to house for the day the so-called undesirables of public schooling. Students who “act out” — that is, students of color who act out — are one and the same as those who have actual special needs, it seems.
Kingsley and his peers sometimes spend entire days unsupervised. When they are, they aren’t formally taught, and it can’t be guaranteed that the person with whom they’ll be in a room is a teacher. (One day, for instance, a sub does an excruciatingly mediocre rendition of “House of the Rising Sun” with an acoustic guitar for his captive audience; when this buffoon at the front of his class tells his students that this song was written by the Animals, we can’t help but laugh scornfully.) Kingsley knows something is amiss. But with a mom who reacts to him staying up late to draw pictures with sighs that he's a heap of trouble, and with a father who thinks it’s more important to learn a trade than be educated, he doesn’t feel like he can bring it up.
Agnes is eventually visited by a woman named Lydia (Josette Simon), an erstwhile politician who is now at the helm of an activist group working to combat the effects of the education system’s discriminatory use of “subnormal” schools. Fortunately it changes everything (this group offers “Sunday schools” that help catch thwarted Black students up). The movie concludes with Kingsley reading aloud at length for the first time, and about a subject he loves. It’s a moving ending. But in keeping with Small Axe’s realism, we also can’t help but think about the tragedies undergirding it — how many children did not get this opportunity in time and have had to live with the long-term ramifications (we hear testimonies from those who have at one activist meeting); the fact that there need be an intrepid activist group to do this kind of assistance in the first place. Each of the stories featured in the anthology spotlit characters proverbially whacking the unjust status quo with small axes. In Education, to paraphrase critic Odie Henderson in his review of the movie, that axe becomes symbolically smaller in the hands of someone like Kingsley — an axe you wish he had not had to wield.
Alex Wheatle: B
Sheyi Cole in 2020's Alex Wheatle.